I want to exercise more for my mental health but always lose motivation and give up. How do I make an active lifestyle stick?

Working out with friends and celebrating little wins will help you stick to an exercise regime.

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Working out with friends and celebrating little wins will help you stick to an exercise regime.
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  • Regardless of whether you want to exercise more for aesthetic benefits or mental health gains, making healthy habits stick is hard.
  • Anyone can be motivated briefly, but making that motivation last is the real challenge.
  • There are lots of things you can do though, such as joining a team to keep yourself accountable, making exercise sociable, and setting yourself performance-based goals.
  • Ultimately, remember you’re in charge of you, and sometimes you won’t feel motivated but will need to push yourself a bit.
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Dear Rachel,

Could you tell me what to do to stick with an active lifestyle? I used to be incredibly active all my life but got super depressed in my second year of university, completely stopped doing anything and would avoid any kind of exercise. I would have waves of motivation and stick to exercising for a couple of weeks and then give up again!

I’ve recently started walking to work and doing 10K steps from it (woo) but I’m worried that I’m going to end up going back to the bus or not striving to do even more! It’s really annoying because exercise is so good for a sad brain.

Please help!

– Demotivated and Down

Dear Demotivated,

Firstly, a huge well done for taking literal action in recovering from depression, that is phenomenal and not something to be glossed over.

Secondly, the issue you’re struggling with is incredibly common – most people think finding initial motivation to live a healthy lifestyle is the challenge, but it’s not really. The challenge is making motivation last.

Motivation is like a fire that you need to keep aflame but not roaring

Personal trainer and fat loss coach Jordan Syatt explained this brilliantly in a recent episode of his podcast using the analogy of a fire:

“You get motivated in the first day or week and you’ve got this roaring fire, you’re just stoking it, trying to make it into the biggest fire you possibly can, but it’s going to go out very quickly,” Syatt said.

While most people take this approach when looking to become healthier, going gung-ho and all guns blazing is not the best way.

Syatt said you need to “take your motivational fire and just let it be there, small and rolling, a little flame but one that’s constantly there.”

He continued: “It’s hot! If you put your finger in it it’s going to burn you, but there’s no reason to try and build it up into a huge forest fire because it’s going to go out really fast. You want to just keep it burning a little bit, feeding it so it can stay consistent, that’s the best flame. Not the roaring one.”

If you try and take on too much all at once, you will likely burn out and not keep it up.

You need to fall in love with how the lifestyle makes you feel

If you embark on an exercise regime thinking that when you finally get the body you want, you’ll be happy, you will likely never get there.

Firstly, aesthetic change is slow and takes time.

Secondly, if you want to make permanent change, whether for your body or mind, you need to create a permanent new lifestyle, one that you enjoy living.

So instead of punishing yourself on a strict exercise regime because you’re chasing certain outcomes, create a healthy, manageable lifestyle you enjoy, one that makes you feel fantastic and that you want to continue forever as a result.

“I tell all my clients to focus on how you feel,” Max Lowery, personal trainer and mountain guide at Connect Retreats told Insider.

Max Lowery.

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Max Lowery.
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Tom Joy

“How does exercise make you feel? How does being more active make you feel?

“Once they start to focus on that, they then do feel immediate difference from being active and exercising. And that gives them motivation to continue.”

Whether you want to exercise more to lose weight or mainly for the mental health benefits, it’s essential to find a form you actually enjoy, as that’s the only way you’ll stick with it.

It’s well known that exercise of all kinds is scientifically proven to boost mental health. But don’t put any pressure on yourself – if you start working out more and don’t immediately feel noticeably more chipper, don’t stress. It might take a little time. We’re all unique.

Make it fun!

Walking to work is an excellent move, so bravo.

Personally, I walk my commute and I absolutely love it – not only am I getting my steps in but I’m saving money and I arrive at work in a far better mood than if I’d taken public transport during rush hour.

It’s also great me-time: I make sure I have interesting podcasts to listen to or just soak up my surroundings and think about things.

My point is, if you focus on all the positives you get from walking and why it’s really much better than any other option, you’ll want to stick with it.

But if it does feel like a huge effort to start with, don’t walk every journey yet. Try walking a couple of times a week and gradually build up.

Max Lowery says the gym isn't for everyone, and that's OK.

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Max Lowery says the gym isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK.
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Tom Joy

Lowery recommends trying to be more active in your social life too, so going climbing or for a walk with friends instead of just to a bar (even if you end up at the bar afterward).

Exercise doesn’t have to mean going to the gym either – if you don’t like it, don’t go.

“A small amount of people actually enjoy going to the gym,” Lowery points out. “So find something that you actually truly enjoy.

“Maybe it’s netball, tennis, maybe it’s golf – whatever it is, you have to enjoy it and that way it becomes a way of life rather than something you’re just doing in the short-term.”

Keep yourself accountable by joining a team

I play netball every Monday, and I absolutely love it. But do you know what? Last Monday, I really, really did not want to play.

There was a storm raging (we play outside), I was feeling under the weather and exhausted, the match was a late one, and running around outside was honestly the last thing I wanted to do.

But I played. Because I couldn’t let my team down.

(I’m not saying you should push yourself to exercise if you’re genuinely ill, but I was fine really.)

Had I been planning on doing any other form of exercise – a class, the gym, bootcamp – I 100% would have canceled and stayed home. But that’s not an option when your team is counting on you.

There are myriad benefits to team sport – the feeling of being part of a squad and the social aspect do wonders for your mental health too – but the accountability is really excellent.

Set long-term performance-based goals

As well as simply enjoying a particular form of activity, having something to work towards will help you stick with it – seeing yourself progress is incredibly satisfying and rather addictive.

“You need to have some kind of long-term goal,” recommends Lowery. “If you are going to the gym, it’s important to set yourself some quite specific performance-based goals such as increasing your squat, decreasing your 5K time, or entering some kind of race.

Lowery suggests avoiding something extreme like a marathon and choosing something more fun and achievable, like an obstacle course or race that you could do with friends.

Goal-setting like this works for me too.

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125KG DEADLIFTS WOTCHU SAYIN’?! ???? Someone asked me the other day I how much I could deadlift and I realised I didn’t know because I haven’t really pushed myself for a while. ????????‍♀️ So this evening I went to the gym and decided to see how much I can lift, and at that moment it was 125kg. That’s nearly twice my body weight! Quite chuffed. ????????‍♀️ (And ngl the first time I did it – sans camera – it was a lot easier, quicker, and with less of a pained expression lol.) ???? I’ll be honest, I’m not my leanest right now. I’m not feeling my fittest – a month away followed by a month of all the Christmas celebrations will do that to a girl and I don’t regret any of it. ???? But it’s bloody excellent to have a reminder that I am strong af. Who cares what my body looks like? Look at what it can do!!! Priorities, people. YAS! ????????

A post shared by Rachel Hosie (@rachel_hosie) on

For example, one of the things I’m currently working on is increasing my one rep max deadlift weight, so I’m following a program that requires me to deadlift once a week.

One evening recently, I wasn’t massively in the mood to go to the gym even though I’d told myself I would, but I knew it was the only time I had to get in my weekly deadlift session. So I went, because I have a goal.

Give yourself small goals too

If big goals seem too daunting, start small.

“Rather than focusing on the ultimate goal of immediately getting back to where you used to be, focus on setting yourself small, yet seriously effective mini-goals that you can use as stepping stones to get back to your old self,” said Pelé Zachariah, head trainer at Rowbots, a boutique London rowing studio that focuses on the mind as much as the body.

Set yourself small goals and celebrate achieving them.

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Set yourself small goals and celebrate achieving them.
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Pelé Zachariah

Focusing on hitting your 10K step goal for a week is a great place to start – when you’ve managed that, celebrate it and then increase your target to 11K or 12K for the next week. This is how you build habits, Zachariah explained to Insider.

“For the third week, maintain 12K steps but then make it your mission to add in an exercise session of 30 minutes,” he said.

“This can be at the gym, in the park, or in the comfort of your own living room. From here you can build on this by increasing your steps, or increasing the duration, intensity, or frequency of your sessions.”

Zachariah believes where many people go wrong is by setting unrealistic, unachievable targets.

“We then feel bad about ourselves if we don’t reach these unrealistic goals, which leads us to throwing in the towel,” he said. “This is a cycle that can happen month in, month out, for years.

“Focus on taking action every single day, and the results will take care of themselves. Over time your daily actions will all add up and I guarantee that you’ll be surprised by just how far you’ve actually come! Remember that we are a product of what we do consistently, not what we do occasionally.”

Remember, you’re in control of you

You say you’re worried about going back to your old ways, but remember: You’re in control of you. The only person who can ensure that doesn’t happen is you.

You decide what you do every day, and you can do this.

Five years ago, I thought I wasn’t an “exercise person.” I was convinced people who said they enjoyed exercise were lying. I now know that not to be the case because I’ve found the types I truly love.

For me, this means predominantly weight-lifting, netball, dancing, and walking. I dabble in other types of exercise to keep things interesting, but never make myself do anything I actively hate and dread, like going for a run.

There will be times when you don’t feel motivated.

In fact, that might be the majority of the time, so don’t sit around waiting to feel motivated – take action.

“Action comes first and you then start to get results and that feeds into your motivation,” said Lowery.

Find what you love, celebrate your little wins, and you’ll be on the right path.

Wishing you well,

Rachel

As Insider’s senior lifestyle reporter and a self-described fitness fanatic, Rachel Hosie is fully immersed in the wellness scene and is here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you’re struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light versus heavy weights, or unsure whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.

Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips – she regularly speaks to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she’s always up to date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest and healthiest life.

Have a question? Ask Rachel at workingitout@insider.com or fill out this anonymous form. All questions will be published anonymously.

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